OXON HILL, Maryland - The National Spelling Bee opened with "glasnost" and was soon followed by "perestroika" -- a fascinating choice of words for a group of youngsters born long after the heyday of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Speller No. 1 -- Meghana Giri of Anniston, Ala. -- handled the Cold War-era word "glasnost" without a hitch Wednesday morning at the start of the onstage rounds of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Meghana was the first of 281 youngsters taking a turn at the microphone in the competition for the title of top speller in the English language. Wednesday's rounds were to be combined with scores from a computer test to determine the semifinalists. The test included a section on vocabulary for the first time in the bee's history.
The finals are Thursday night, when the winner will take home more than $30,000 in cash and prizes.
The first 20 spellers breezed through words such as "mandir," "Eocene" and "tertiary" before the telltale bell rang for the first time when Alan Shi of Irvine, Calif., put an "s" instead of a "c" at the start of "cynosure." The first to be eliminated, Alan was uncertain which way to go until officials directed him to the offstage comfort couch to be met by a parent.
The spellers came from all 50 states as well as Canada, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, China, Ghana, Italy, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The youngest is 8-year-old Tara Singh of Louisville, Ky. Last year there was a 6-year-old -- Lori Anne Madison, the youngest speller ever to qualify -- but she did not win her regional bee this year.
Two students from the Houston area are participating in the spelling bee this year. Shobha Dasari, 12, is a sixth grader from Pearland's Leon Sablatura Middle School. Syamantak Payra, 12, is a seventh grader representing Westbrook Intermediate School in Friendswood.
Wednesday morning, both students advanced to the second preliminary round, which will be held Wednesday afternoon. Shobha spelled "mediocre" correctly and Syamantak spelled "samovar," which means a copper urn.
Out of 291 students that competed Wednesday afternoon, Shobha and Syamantak made the cut. They are two of 41 semifinalists who will compete on Thursday.
The first of this year's favorites, 14-year-old Rachael Cundey of Evans, Ga., had no problem with "lokshen" (another word for noodles). Rachael tied for 10th last year and is back for the fifth time.
Another top contender hopes to become the second half of the bee's first set of sibling champions. Eleven-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., also finished tied for 10th last year and is hoping to emulate her sister, Kavya, who won the title in 2009.
Vanya, sporting her now-familiar look of headband and ponytail, is an energetic presence onstage and nods assuredly after spelling her words. It's quite the contrast from her sister, who came across as more serious and always finished her words with a modest smile.
But they have the same spelling style -- tracing the words on the palm while calling out the letters. Vanya did just that as she handled "intaglio," a word related to engraving or printing.
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